Obscenity undefined: Stagliano reflects on his indictment

I first met John Stagliano in the summer of 2004 reporting a backstage feature for Las Vegas Weekly on the creation of his show, Fashionistas, at what is now Planet Hollywood. I had never heard of him before that. The show opened in the summer of 2004 to great acclaim and lasted for three years. That beat Hairspray, Spamalot and The Producers, to name a few of the better-financed shows that closed more quickly.

However, it wasn't the longevity but the extraordinary quality of the show that was surprising to a lot of people, including me. The reason: Buttman. The most innovative show the Strip has seen in the new century was backed by the money John Stagliano earned as the legendary pornographer known as Buttman, and as owner of Evil Angel, perhaps the largest distributor of adult content in the country. In fact, Fashionistas the production show was based on an epic porn movie of the same name. In 2003, the movie won more AVN awards (the adult Oscars) than any previous film ever had. That success gave Stagliano the initiative to revive a dream he'd had since being turned down as a dancer for a show at the Stardust in the 70s: He used his porn millions to create a Vegas show his way and anchored it around the Fashionistas porno.

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Oscenity: an interview with John Stagliano

Out of his four-hour porno, he created a modernist dance interpretation of the movie, with a heavy industrial soundtrack featuring bands like Tool and Prodigy. It may not sound promising on paper, but critics were blown away. The show was repeatedly cited as one of the best and most innovative in Vegas history. Mike Weatherford began his review for the Las Vegas Review-Journal by saying, "A pornographer has just embarrassed a lot of people. Adult video mogul John Stagliano has shown the producers of Skintight, Midnight Fantasy, Bite and even Zumanity what a real Las Vegas adult show can be." That was a typical response.

In reporting the story on Stagliano's show, I got a strong sense of his artistic and political goals as a filmmaker. Not that I watched the films. I got that Stagliano's movies were extreme for my taste. These are not stories about people coming up with novel sexual ways to pay for pizza. The then editor of the adult trade publication AVN told me that Stagliano was arguably the most influential adult filmmaker in history. He is credited with inventing the genre of adult known as Gonzo. If you enjoy that, you owe Stagliano.

Stagliano on his indictment

Finding the Right Niche

But I admired Stagliano for the Fashionistas Vegas show (which had no nudity) and joined the Vegas critics' chorus singing the praises of Stagliano's artistically ambitious and skillful Vegas production.

I was not familiar with the hardcore movies Stagliano made and distributed, beyond knowing that sales of the films were financing the best show in Vegas. But Stagliano took his film far too seriously to leave it at that. At Stagliano's insistence one evening I watched a full scene from one of the Fashionistas movies with its creator at my condo. Stagliano could tell I was uncomfortable with slapping and strangling and challenged me on each point. In particular I was disturbed by a scene involving an actress named Melissa Lauren, which I won't describe. His views on sex are more violent than any fantasy I knew people had in their hearts. But I have never given the subject much thought. Stagliano's films explore his ideas fully and with an obsessive eye for detail. They find their academic precedent clearly in the writing of theorists like Michel Foucault. To Stagliano and Foucault, there is a link between physical attraction and animal violence that in its most extreme expression frees people from societal taboos. Both feel that sex is a key to liberation and freedom.

Of course, I only saw one scene directed by Stagliano, and I was upset enough that I searched out Melissa Lauren, the actress, to get her view on how she was treated in the scene. She felt the scene was some of her best work. And she told me that my sense that she was being demeaned was silly. In fact, she was proud of the scene.

In some ways this experience should be seen as freedom of speech at its best. I learned about human behavior in ways I would never have known about without Stagliano's film. This sort of movie isn't for everyone. It is not for me. But I understood with clarity a different range of human emotion and experience consenting adults choose to engage in; for a writer, such lessons are always priceless. I love living in a country that allows such exchanges to take place between consenting adults.

At the January, 2008 AVN Awards at Mandalay Bay, Stagliano had his cast from the Vegas production of Fashionistas do something very different than is usual at AVN Awards. The show usually is light and funny and focuses on the industry celebrating itself with a very, very, very long awards show. But Stagliano put on stage for the audience of his industry peers an elaborate skit about the government censors coming for them all. The skit was very much Stagliano at his best, mixing his aesthetic sense with his political ideas. The performance is posted at Defendourporn.org. Be warned there is nudity in the performance.

Though Stagliano did not know it that night, even then federal prosecutors were investigating his company's films. He was indicted in April on numerous obscenity charges. If convicted he faces decades in prison.

Stagliano agreed to an exclusive interview with me for Sage Vice. We spoke over the objections of his lawyer and of his wife. There were no preconditions about what I could ask. He never said the words "off the record" during the interview. If I am a sympathetic interviewer, I also tried to be a thorough one. If you feel Stagliano should have been asked a question by me and wasn't, leave a comment. If there is a question that I notice that enough people feel strongly should have been asked, I will contact Stagliano and get an answer.

This interview took place at the Hard Rock on Friday. Stagliano was in Vegas because his company, Evil Angel, was participating in the Xbiz convention, an annual adult industry Net conference that has been in Vegas for the past three years.

July 4 saw the release of Defend Our Porn, a compilation of scenes donated by Evil Angel directors past and present to benefit Stagliano's defense. The first scene on the tape is the one Stagliano showed me that disturbed me so much. It is one of the more extreme scenes Stagliano has ever filmed. But that is John Stagliano – a person not about to back down or compromise, a point that came up throughout our conversation. He is ready to fight the government and he has the resources and his industry and fans are contributing more.

Without further fanfare here is the interview with the star of the new century's version of the People Vs. Larry Flynt.


Richard Abowitz

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